This Article connects two growing categories of academic literature and policy reform: arguments for treating young adults in the criminal justice system more leniently than older adults because of evidence showing brain development and maturation continue until the mid-twenties; and arguments calling for reducing mass incarceration and identifying various mechanisms to do so. These categories overlap, but research has not previously built in depth connections between the two.
Connecting the two bodies of literature helps identify and strengthen arguments for reform. First, changing charging, detention, and sentencing practices for young adults is one important tool to reduce mass incarceration. Young adults commit a disproportionate number of crimes. Because so many offenders are young adults, treating young adults less severely could have significant impacts on the number of individuals incarcerated.
Second, focusing on young adults responds to retributive arguments in defense of existing sentencing policies, especially for violent offenses. The mass incarceration literature shows that sentences for violent offenses explain much, if not most, of recent decades’ prison growth. Young adult violent offenders deserve punishment, but their youth mitigates their culpability and thus offers a response to retributive calls for long sentences.
Third, considering mass incarceration can add both urgency and new ideas to the growing debate about reforming sentencing of young adults. Such reforms have thus far been tentative, following well-grounded desires to test different alternative interventions for young adults. The mass incarceration literature adds an important consideration – the status quo demands prompt and far-reaching reform – and new ideas, such as prosecutorial charging guidelines that encompass defendants’ age.
Josh Gupta-Kagan, The Intersection between Young Adult Sentencing and Mass Incarceration, 2018 Wis. L. Review 669 (2018).